The first modern ballet was John Weaver’s The Loves of Mars and Venus, performed at London’s Drury Lane Theatre on 2 March 1717. John Weaver (1673-1760) was a dancer, choreographer, teacher and scholar. The Loves of Mars and Venus was the first dance work to tell a story through dance, gesture and music alone. 2017 marks its 300th anniversary.
The dancing we call classical ballet began in 17th-century France, but before 1717 it had always been part of operas and plays and dependant on their words to narrate the drama. The Loves of Mars and Venus was the drama. Described in its own time as a ‘Dramatic Entertainment of Dancing’ it recounts the love affair between Mars and Venus and the revenge of the goddess’s husband Vulcan. The Loves of Mars and Venus established dance as an independent art and influenced ballet throughout Europe.
Weaver told the familiar story in six short scenes full of dancing and gestures. The whole entertainment took, perhaps, 40 minutes. At its first performances, Mars was danced by Louis Dupré, Venus was Hester Santlow and John Weaver himself danced Vulcan. Dupré was a virtuoso dancer who was probably French, although he was definitely not the famous ‘Le grand’ Dupré of the Paris Opera. Mrs Santlow was an English dancer-actress, greatly admired for her beauty as well as her dancing skills – one contemporary described her as ‘incomparable’. Weaver’s stage skills were essentially those of a comic dancer, although he was obviously also a master of rhetorical gesture. They were supported by Drury Lane’s best dancers as the ‘Followers’ of Mars and Venus, with the company’s comedians as Weaver’s workmen the Cyclops.
The Loves of Mars and Venus was an undoubted success, with seven performances during its first season and revivals at the Drury Lane Theatre until 1724.